Sunday, 09 July 2006

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Literature Today [If you have recommendations for “Literature Today,” post them to del.icio.us and tag ‘em “thevalve” or send them to acephalous (@) gmail (.) com.] Vanderbilt builds “a constellation.” (How’s that for a subtle URL?) Life? Or Theater?: While it is usually exhibited on the walls of museums, it could just as reasonably be presented horizontally, like a book. It makes sense to treat it as a graphic novel, a story of ironic complexity and brutal honesty. But of course there is also the title, which indicates that this is really a piece of theater. [Editor: For your convenience, this article is also available in Yiddish.] Tintin and the Secret of Literarture: Literary theory or “an elaborately coded ‘art stunt’”? Peter Nicholson discusses the limitations of the ironic mode: Part One, Part Two. Letters are “the only really satisfactory form of literature,” claims Lytton Strachey, and he aims to prove his words true: The world is rather tiresome, I must say—everything at sixes and sevens—ladies in love with buggers, and buggers in love with womanizers, and the price of coal going up, too. Where will it all end? Mal Peet, after winning the Carnegie Medal for Tamar: How can [Bush and Blair] have forgotten history, and forgotten Vietnam? How can Bush be so illiterate and unlearned? I think the opposite of learning is literary amnesia, in its wider sense, and I worry we are suffering from this on a large scale at the moment. I’m not sure I follow. Finally, those wild, wild undergraduates. So naïve. Of course he “expects to finish writing the book by next week.”
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The Two Are Not One [x-posted from the Valve ] In “The End of the Poststructuralist Era,” from Follies of the Wise, Frederick Crews charts the hasty marriage and slow estrangement of poststructuralist thought and New Left activism. His argument, and its implications, may surprise you. You see, the Yale School of deconstruction’s “manifest aim was ... to bring a spirit of erudite whimsy into the discussion of familiar [canonical] books, which would be rendered only more endearing by the discovery that their meanings were more multitudinous and undecidable than anyone had yet surmised” (308). Too true, too true. Only, why would the discovery of even “more multitudinous and undecidable” dimensions to canonical literature open up the canon to previously marginalized voices? Wouldn’t deconstruction have the opposite effect? Hillis, speaking here in his 1986 presidential address, certainly thought so: As everyone knows, literary study in the past few years has undergone a sudden, almost universal turn away from theory in the ordinary sense of an orientation toward language as such and has made a corresponding turn toward history, culture, society, politics, institutions, class and gender conditions. (283) Color me confused. Here I thought theory necessarily entailed the commitments it so recently acquired. Here I thought older modes of criticism possessed the retrograde politics. Here I thought a lot of things a little historical perspective shattered. Why? Because the explanations were conceptual. Because they’re always conceptual. Poststructuralist thought always allies itself with a progressive politics, and poststructuralist thinkers always fold the latter into the former. The result? Opposition to poststructuralist thought necessarily entails an opposition to the progressiveness of its immanent politics. Now I can complain that those politics aren’t immanent, that no textual orientation contains an immanent politics, but I will be shouted down by those who experience as natural their political and theoretical commitments, who cannot disentangle them because, well, because no one can offer a convincing reason that they should. For the better part of two decades, literary critics have used a poststructuralist theoretical approach to generate a body of progressive thought, so of course the two appear inseparable. Factor in the overwhelming number of conservative critics who fancy themselves poststructuralists, then think about it: If everyone who does what they do shares the same politics, and everyone who doesn’t, doesn’t, why would they question a connection that feels so natural to them? They have no reason to. So they haven’t. I have, but from the wrong direction. I started in the ‘70s moving forward, from the moment when the former radicals gained purchase in the discipline. All this time, I should have been looking at it from the other direction, from the ‘80s moving backwards. To point out, as Hillis does above, that “theory in the ordinary sense” existed independently of the commitments it eventually acquired. Conceptual arguments be damned, I say, I have history. The two are not one, not naturally. They may be one of this lot, but more than likely not. Just a simple couple whose marriage, while productive,...

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